She has played the part of actress, model, mother, writer and activist. Now, Rachel Ward has received critical acclaim for her feature directorial debut, Beautiful Kate. She spoke to Chrissa Favaloro about how a writing course at UTS kicked off her new career.
“As a filmmaker, you need the soul of a poet and the hide of a rhino,” says Rachel Ward. “It’s about convincing film boards to support your work, convincing other writers to come on board, it’s about instilling a sense of passion for your project in people who want to come along on the journey with you... It’s exhausting at times.
“The hardest part is putting your film out there for the world to see, and critique.”
Seated in Charlotte Cafe in Birchgrove, the passion and drive that led Ward, 52, to commit the better half of five years working on her first feature film, Beautiful Kate, is palpable. More than two years were spent honing the script (it was based on Newton Thornburg’s novel of the same name which was set in Idaho in the US), followed by months spent securing investors and hiring the cast before the shoot could commence in South Australia’s Flinders Rangers in March 2008.
Beautiful Kate has completed its rounds at the cinema and was recently released on DVD – sales have been strong, as have the reviews. It was nominated for 10 Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards in 2009, including best feature film, best direction and best adapted screenplay, and took out the Inside Film (IF) Award for Best Cinematography (Ward was also nominated for Best Direction in the IF Awards).
Sipping on a weak latte, she is wired with energy.
“As a writer, you need to be obsessively driven,” Ward explains. “You’re self-employed, working on your own, so you need to make things happen. It’s very competitive.”
Rewind to 1983 and a 25-yearold Rachel Ward had left a modelling career for the glittering lights of Hollywood. She’d made her mark in a few 80s films – Sharky’s Machine alongside Burt Reynolds and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid with Steve Martin – had appeared on Dynasty and had been named one of the world’s 10 most beautiful women.
She was about to start shooting the immensely popular miniseries The Thorn Birds, when she met actor Bryan Brown on the set.
The connection was instant and, packing her bags a matter of months later, she relocated to Australia.
“I flew into Tullamarine Airport [Melbourne] to meet Bryan. Australia was utterly exotic to me. The Ash Wednesday fires were burning and it was an apocalyptic place. At the time, Bryan was doing Eureka Stockade in Bendigo and it all seemed so new. The landscape was hostile and foreign. Even the birds were different. I’d come from the UK where it was all so cosy, green, friendly.”
Indeed, the contrast between her early years growing up as British aristocracy – she’s the granddaughter of the 3rd Earl of Dudley – to the wilds of the Australian bush is immense. “I felt romanced and intimidated at the same time,” she says.
A decade later, Ward had three children with Brown – Rosie, now 25, Matilda, 22, and Joe, 17 – and was ready for a new challenge.
“I felt I needed an education. I’d left school at 16, become an actress/model and I’d lost all those formative university years. I had no skills at all – I had to go back to the beginning.”
Fortunately, says Ward, the “wonderful concept” of the mature-aged student had just emerged and she enrolled herself in a postgraduate writing course at UTS.
“It was daunting, really daunting to be 35 years’ old and going to university. To be in a classroom full of 18-year-olds who I was sure would pip me at every post.”
Over the years, though, Ward had quietly honed her writing skills. “This was back before the internet and I would always write letters home – I’d been away since I was 19, when I moved to the US. It was Bryan who said I wrote good letters.”
She credits the UTS writing course for allowing her to find her creative voice. “I almost recognise a UTS ‘voice’ now – I mean that in a positive way.”
Bryan, she says, has just found his writing voice. “Bryan is in Trinidad at the moment and we’re writing letters to each other. He’s writing in the third person – in character, adopting a slightly naive way of looking at the world – and he’s cracked his [creative] voice. So I’m now writing in the third person in response about my life here,” she says, smiling.
Despite having lived in Australia for more than a quarter of a century, Ward states she still feels very much like a migrant, “which is a wonderful thing for a writer/filmmaker… It gives you perspective”.
This sense of isolation also motivated Ward to get involved with charities, earning her an Order of Australia in 2005. “It was my way of building an extended family,” she explains.
Ward is currently the patron for the Kids In Community charity and YWCA Australia. She also established the annual Mother Of All Balls event to raise money for ‘Big Brothers Big Sisters’ and ‘Aunties and Uncles’, two YWCA programs that offer support and mentoring for young people. Ward and Brown often have children stay with them at their house in Sydney’s inner west.
“I have two Sudanese refugees this weekend through the Kids In Community organisation. They’re both lost boys of Sudan: they live in Lismore now.
“I’m taking them to a black-tie do for the YWCA at Bondi Beach and then the polo on Sunday [in Richmond]. A friend who plays in the Australian Ladies’ Polo team bullied me into becoming an ambassador. It’ll be a taste of the privileged life,” she says, laughing.
“I took another kid to the Chinese ballet. It was a young girl and I thought it was just her coming to stay with us, but she brought her dad too. He turned up – he’s this country guy, a farmer, with missing teeth – and I thought, ‘he’s going to hate this’. Turns out she was bored by the whole thing and he was completely knocked out by the ballet. He wouldn’t stop talking about it.”
Charity work, says Ward, has helped her understand the breadth of society. “When you’ve lived a privileged life, you can get very cut off to the realities of how a lot of other people live, cut off from the hardships that they face. It makes you take your life for granted.”
Prior to Beautiful Kate, Ward directed two short films that also brave the terrain of ambiguous morality: the award winning 24-minute prison drama, The Big House (2000), and the 53-minute drama, Martha’s New Coat (2003), which stars Ward’s daughter Matilda Brown, then aged 16. Both these films have been given a new lease on life, appearing in the special features section of the Beautiful Kate DVD.
“The Big House was set in a mens’ prison and it was about how young boys, new to the prison, get ‘picked off’ by older inmates to become their sexual partners. Early on, I set up the old guy to be completely despicable, but later on you begin to understand the system and what leads to men forming these kinds of relationships inside. You realise it’s all about survival in an inhumane place,” says Ward.
It’s these grey areas that fuel her creative work. “That’s what a storyteller does: looks at who we are as a society, what our values are and how they are drifting and changing over time. A lot of films are morally black and white – Harry Potter uses children’s morality, for example – but it’s not as simple as that.”
So what’s next for Ward? “I’m working on My Cleaner with Geoffrey Atherden, who wrote Mother and Son. It’s a comedy/drama about the choices women make and the consequences of those choices.”
Success the second time round has happened slowly, incrementally, she says. “I don’t feel that different because of it. But you’re always left with a sense that you can do better, there’s always room for improvement. I think that’s what keeps us motivated to work at it.”
Photography: Matthew Duchesne / Milk & Honey